Can Humans Absolve Shame?

Chris —  February 26, 2015

The following is an excerpt from a recent talk I gave at Austin Mustard Seed for the first week of Lent.

In you, Lord my God,
I put my trust.
I trust in you;
do not let me be put to shame,
nor let my enemies triumph over me.
No one who hopes in you
will ever be put to shame,
but shame will come on those
who are treacherous without cause.
Psalm 25:1-3

The Poet begs that God deliver him from shame.

I find it interesting that he does not ask outright for success. He doesn’t beg God for a win. He says don’t let me be ashamed.

The Fear of Shame

What is it about shame that is so terrible it sends us begging for God’s help?

What he’s describing here is a public humiliation. Think Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, where the protagonist Hester Prinn gets pregnant out of wedlock and is marched down the street with a red letter A sewed to her bodice. Perhaps a more relevant example comes from


The poet is begging God for victory so that he won’t be humiliated.

Shame begins as a social construct. It’s used by families, communities, churches, schools and anywhere you can find a group of people to respond when someone behave the wrong way. But it doesn’t stop there.

Shame buries itself deep in our psyche. The scars of previous shame experiences can cause us to avoid opportunities of lead us down dark road.

Fear of being shamed leads to lying. We withhold our opinion or desires because of the fear of shame that someone will disagree and ridicule us.

Fear of shame leads us to isolation. I knew a woman who was very involved in a church community until she lost her job. She stopped showing up because she was afraid of the shame of having to answer the question “what do you do?” Fear of shame leads to inaction. I’ve known single men and women who were afraid to ask someone out on a date for the fear of the shame of rejection. I’ve known married couples who avoid sharing their true selves for the same reason fear of the shame of rejection.

Finally, shame and the fear of shame lead to numbing. We get sucked into wasteful behaviors and addictions to avoid the quiet moments where we hear the voice of shame.

Defining Shame vs. Guilt

If you can’t tell, I’m leaning hard on the work of Dr. Brené Brown, a well-known shame researcher.

Here’s how she defines shame:

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Illustrate

The fear of shame has shaped much of my own life. I have felt ashamed to talk about my youth or my college experience, because I some of it was difficult or embarrassing. I’ve often been ashamed because of my finances. Throughout my 20s, I accumulated debt, had a hard time finding jobs or keeping them. I survived on beans and rice and the grace of strangers who took me in off the streets. I struggle with the shame of relationships. Making close friendships and romantic relationships have never come naturally to me.

While the poet speaks of being publicly shamed by his enemies, you only have to be marched through the streets once for this feeling to stick with you the rest of your life. My shame is often triggered when I’m alone. A memory of a failure or embarrassment pops into my head and I find myself reliving the shameful moment, mumbling aloud what I wish I had said. My heart races and blood rushes to my head. It can be worse than the actual moment of shame.

For me though, the biggest problem with shame is that I avoid risk. Any good opportunity requires risk, risk means becoming vulnerable to the shame of failure. Therefore, risk and vulnerability become a problems to be avoided and managed.

I find myself ducking around corners because I’m not up to talking to people. I don’t apply for jobs I should. I avoid building friendships that I need. Over time, I start to even avoid things that would bring me joy, because as Brené Brown says, When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.

The Power of Absolution

Because shaming is a social response to certain behaviors, we need a social mechanism to counteract it.

The alternative to shame is not to avoid judgment or take on some “anything goes” attitude. The alternative to shame is guilt.

Brené Brown describes the difference between shame and guilt this way:

Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior.

Shame is, “I am bad.”

Guilt is, “I did something bad.”

How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that?

Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake.

Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.

So what does it mean for Austin Mustard Seed to be a community that addresses shame? There’s a tradition of the church called absolution, that goes all the way back to Jesus. In one of the books about Jesus teachings called Matthew, he says this: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

A little later he says:

“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

It’s a crazy thought, but Jesus is saying that you and I have the ability to address, and somehow absolve others of their shame! Brené Brown has an absolution of sorts that she mentions in her book Daring Greatly.

“You are imperfect, you are wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

Many churches traditions incorporate absolution into their liturgy. My favorite is this one:

First, there is a confession, maybe a public one, like the one we did earlier. Or perhaps this is in a private conversation. After the confessor finishes, they use the following dialogue:

Listener:The Lord has put away all your sins.

Confessor: Thanks be to God.

Listener Abide in peace, and pray for me, a sinner.

Shame is a social construct, and we have the capacity to release others from it.


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